A BBFC busybody breaks down in this British horror from Prano Bailey-Bond.
Set during the Video Nasties scandal, Censor is a fresh take on an old favourite. The horror industry spent decades fighting censorship, and being the most self-referential of genres it incorporates those battles into its movies. Scream saw Wes Craven parody the notion of teenagers driven to violence by horror flicks; in Videodrome David Cronenberg imagined a graphic broadcast physically changing someone; now Censor finds Bailey-Bond satirising the idea that violent videos alter our mental states. Her masterstroke is having that person be a film censor, the people entrusted with protecting the public from obscenity. To quote Cronenberg: “Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion.”
Bailey-Bond resists the temptation to make the censor (a brilliant Niamh Algar) the full Mary Whitehouse experience, presenting her instead as a sympathetic figure desperately trying to do the right thing. When a title she passed is blamed for a murder, the press and public turn on her; a sharp insight into the insatiable appetite of moral panic. Despite the specific time period, Censor draws a contemporary parallel with the media acting as a mouthpiece for a duplicitous government hungry for scapegoats.
An auspicious debut for the Welsh filmmaker, Censor holds our interest for the 84 minutes even if it doesn’t quite live up to its potential and loses some of the comic energy established early on by the likes of Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns and Felicity Montagu. Its weakest element is actually its recreation of Video Nasties; this is a rare feature that would benefit from being a bit more ’80s, since the uncanny titles like Don’t Go in the Church (“There won’t be many places left for us to go soon”) look much too new to pass as VHS footage.
Where it works is in using an ambiguous atmosphere to convey its political message, that real horror is out there and would exist with or without films and censors. Ultimately the picture’s problems are similar to those of the protagonist; takes things a little too seriously, loses its way and removes a lot of the good stuff.